Kirby Smart lifts Georgia to new heights amid high-stakes college football environment

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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has built the Bulldogs into a consensus No. 1 program in his sixth year at the helm. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

ATHENS — Kirby Smart took over Georgia before the 2016 season preaching and practicing “relentless energy and passion,” understanding the urgency it would take to find success in the SEC.

Six years later, Smart finds himself a national coach of the year favorite and the third-longest tenured coach in the 14-team league, sending condolences to the second Florida head coach to be shown the door since he was hired.

“I hate it for Dan (Mullen), because I think Dan is a good person,” Smart said on Monday, one day after the Gators’ coach was terminated. “It’s a tough situation, but it’s a profession that we chose to be in. I know Dan will be fine.”

RELATED: How Florida firing has direct effect on Georgia football future

Smart has lifted Georgia football to its greatest heights since the 1980 national championship season, leading the Bulldogs to their fourth SEC Championship Game appearance in the past five years.

Georgia (11-0) will play Alabama (10-1) at 4 p.m. on Dec. 4 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium with College Football Playoff implications at stake.

The Bulldogs will surely have extended the nation’s longest active win streak when the teams meet. UGA is a 35-point favorite to beat Georgia Tech on Saturday and extend its string of victories to 16 games dating back to last season.

RELATED: Georgia a jumbo favorite to dominate Georgia Tech

Nothing less than a convincing Georgia knockout on Saturday is expected from a Bulldogs’ team that’s won every game since the opener by double digits.

Each week, the College Football Playoff Committee gathers to evaluate the top teams, placing them in a pecking order that’s as much a beauty contest as anything else.

“I think the landscape across college football is what it is,” Smart said “The stakes have gotten higher. The pay has gotten higher, and with that, comes expectations.”

Smart credits the Georgia football program’s strong foundation for his ability to maintain success.

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged athletic department budgets at a time when management structures were transforming to fit new personnel acquisition rules for recruiting and immediate transfer eligibility.

Indeed, two of the key players in Georgia’s high-profile showdown with Clemson in Charlotte, N.C., were acquired via the transfer portal — college football’s version of free agency - quarterback JT Daniels (USC) from cornerback Derion Kendrick (Clemson).

Coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers, meanwhile, had not been as aggressive as Smart using the transfer portal to fill immediate needs, losing the opener and fading outside the Top 25 for the first time since 2014 season.

“It’s a different landscape now than it was even four or five years ago in terms of portal, recruiting, number of initials,” Smart said, asked about today’s college football world. “Everything changes so fast. It makes it tougher. It’s a much tougher job. "

And yet, it is Smart and his Georgia football program that have elevated above the rest, ranked No. 1 and soaring on and off the field.

The Bulldogs’ talent has elevated to the extent a second-straight school record NFL draft class is pending, with 10 or more expected to be selected this season

Georgia also has the No. 1-ranked 2022 signing class on tap, capitalizing on a new state-of-the-art football building, the latest addition to the more than $180 million in facilities’ additions and improvements in the last six years.

It adds up to Georgia remaining one of the most stable programs in the nation.

While Florida will be making its seventh head coaching hire since 2001, Smart is the second head coach at UGA in that same time frame, following Mark Richt.

Smart had spent 11 years with Saban, including the previous nine, before shunning an opportunity to become South Carolina’s head coach and return home to coach Georgia.

“When the opportunity at Georgia came about, it really wasn’t about the stability or any of that,” Smart said.

“It was about an opportunity and a place I believe in and a place that I wanted to be at for a long time.”

Smart is working in the fourth year of a seven-year contract that will be renegotiated after the season, when it’s expected he’ll receive a long-term deal worth at least $100 million.

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